Should we be doing more about the political oppression in Syria?

Gareth: I can’t understand why we, the West, are engaged in military actions in Libya whilst we seem to be standing idly by whilst the Syrian opposition and innocent bystanders are butchered by Assad’s henchmen.

Ed: Well that’s quite an unorthodox conversation starter…

G: Seriously, it is rank moral hypocrisy to employ such zealous rhetoric against Gaddafi and back it up with military power and yet not translate the same rhetoric into concrete action in Syria. It stinks of a West which is self-interested. We have a responsibility to protect people from governments that seek violence upon them.

E: Well, regarding the West being hypocritical in its actions, I think there can be dangers in striving above all else for consistency in foreign policy.

G: Yeah, that might be true, although I’m not saying that it is. You haven’t established why it would be unwise in this particular situation. Obviously I’m not saying we have to invade the world!

E: Okay, in this situation, the Syrian military is superior to Libya’s, the Arab League, and at least two members of the Security Council (cough, Russia and China, cough), would never lend support to such an idea. Basically, Russia and China are angry after agreeing to the Libyan UN Security Council resolution since they feel that it has been abused and expanded into changing the regime, so they won’t agree to another resolution like that. A no-fly zone is pretty much impossible in Syria for a plethora of reasons and a ground invasion could result in outcomes far worse than the current massacres. Moreover, our very presence in Libya means we don’t actually have the resources to go into Syria!

G: Well, just because there is a lack of support doesn’t mean we can’t do it, it just means we’re going to annoy some people – doing something positive, and annoying people whilst doing it, happens all the time (e.g. Bono is trying to save the planet and he still manages to annoy a hell of a lot of people). Exactly who is going to be annoyed though? Russia and China back Syria due to self-interest, as do other states in the region. I think that people are missing the point; what about those on the ground, being killed? Why are their preferences not taken into account? People on the ground in Libya who resisted Gaddafi were rather happy for some NATO air power. You claim a no-fly zone can’t work, why?

E: It doesn’t matter why there is opposition when that opposition affects our ability to successfully complete our objectives. To be blunt, states in the region and the world are much more able to make life difficult for the UK and her allies than political protesters in Syria. As for a no-fly zone, it’s quite simple; obviously you can only bomb things when you have a reasonable chance of not killing the people you’re actually trying to save. Syria is more urbanised than Libya is; here we are seeing security forces engage protesters in the streets and in cities. In Libya, we were able to bomb military vehicles as they drove across large areas of desert. We couldn’t bomb Gaddafi’s forces effectively when they were engaged in street-to-street fighting.

G: Well, we could always target convoys moving towards urban areas and attack discrete military targets, thereby damaging the ability of the armed forces to mobilise. Also, that doesn’t include our ability to deploy ground forces to actively engage the Syrian military.

E: That’s actually insane. You want to invade Syria? Have you heard of Iraq? We don’t want another quagmire in the Middle East acting as a lightning rod for extremism.

G: Iraq was a clearly selfish war handled utterly incompetently. What about the recent conflict in Cote D’Ivoire? Claiming that intervention can often be difficult and therefore impossible is frankly ridiculous. We’re simply not willing to accept the costs of intervening; that’s not the same as saying that intervention is impossible. It would send a clear message that our foreign policy is not solely motivated by self-interest and would act as a deterrent to any more dictators thinking about shooting their opponents.

E: Regardless of the motives for engagement there are clear parallels between the nature of the Iraqi regime and the Syrian one. The same reasons why we would take action against the Syrians would have had equal validity in Iraq. The point is that the slaughtering probably won’t stop unless Assad goes; even if Assad goes we have no idea who will replace him and whether that will have popular support or lead to a terrible insurgency like in Iraq. Gareth, the French had to be incredibly careful that the arrest of Gbagbo was actually prosecuted by the local population. Why? Because there would have been an enormous backlash against any future regime which was born out of Western interference. The same applies in Syria. We can do more damage by being involved – hence why we didn’t support the Green Movement in Iran. As for showing ourselves to be liberators, those who are disgusted with our foreign policy are not going to be swayed by an intervention which can easily be characterised as selfish, given our silence over Saudi Arabia. It’s hardly a deterrence either, unless we have a blanket policy of invading oppressive states which aren’t our allies, which would be mad.

G: Firstly, we don’t need a blanket policy, we just need to make it conceivable that dictators will be punished: some deterrence is better than none. Secondly, Tunisia and Egypt collapsed because their regimes wouldn’t go all the way and just kept shooting people until protests stopped. Moreover, your argument is odd because the intervention has been overall positive in Libya, where we have clearly backed a rebel movement. The movement’s legitimacy is stronger than ever – mostly because they’re not dead. Finally, we have a long history of doing nasty things abroad. We can try targeted assassination, arming rebels, special forces sabotage. It’s high time we used our significant military resources for a noble end.

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